Tips for surviving a remote PhD

By James Hayton,
June 4, 2013
I'm James, I'm a former physicist (PhD, Nottingham, 2007) and author of "PhD: An Uncommon Guide to Research, Writing & PhD Life".
Since 2010, I've been helping PhD students all over the world overcome barriers in their research and writing
My strategies have helped thousands of PhD students just like you to build confidence, write better and finish on time

Doing a PhD is undoubtedly harder when you are geographically separated from your academic institution.

Whether you are doing a distance-PhD or are separated for some other reason, isolation from contact and support from your supervisor and fellow students adds a whole other level of difficulty to a task which is already pretty damn difficult.

Why is it a remote PhD more difficult?

The reason universities exist is to bring together academics with different ideas and expertise. This creates an environment where the discussions collaborations and arguments crucial to innovation can take place.

Because nobody is good at everything, the sharing of ideas and knowledge can lead to discoveries which would have been impossible for any one individual to achieve alone. Even if the bulk of the work was carried out by one person, discussions with other academics are almost always an essential part of the process.

This is clearly more difficult if you are doing a remote PhD.

Also, when you start a PhD you almost certainly lack research experience. This is OK, because you are supposed top know more when you finish than when you start. If you are surrounded by more experienced researchers then you can learn from them, not just research techniques but how they think and talk about their work. Without this contact you have to figure everything out yourself through trial and error.

Essential tips for surviving a remote PhD

1- Fight for attention

Contact with your supervisor wont happen by accident. Many students assume that their supervisors time is more valuable than their own and are therefore reluctant to seek regular contact, but this is a false assumption.

If your supervisor is busy, you have to fight for their attention. it is your responsibility to ensure they don't forget you. As a minimum, you should push to have contact via telephone or skype at least once per month.

If they are not willing to spend 1 hour per month with you, you probably have the wrong supervisor.

2- Update your supervisor, no matter what

Another false assumption is that you have to have something to show before contacting your supervisor. This is probably the worst assumption you can make! It means that you wont seek help when you need it the most.

It also means that the longer you go without contact, the greater expectation you put on yourself to produce something amazing to account for the time since you last spoke and the less likely you are to make contact.

Email your supervisor with updates, irrespective of whether it is going well or not. You don't have to ask for input every time, you can just let them know;

  • what you have been working on
  • progress/ problems
  • what you plan to do next

Do this every 2 weeks.

3- Take every opportunity to talk to other students and academics

At some point, you will hopefully get the opportunity to meet other students and academics face to face.

Take every opportunity you get, and talk to as many people as you can. If you leave without anyone's contact details, you have missed a huge opportunity!

4- Ask questions!

You are not expected to know everything, and you do not have to do everything on your own.

Asking questions shows that you are engaged and interested in the process and that you value other people's input!

In summary...

The common factor in all of these tips is that you must make extra effort to get yourself noticed. If you hide away from contact with others, it will be a very lonely process indeed...

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